Society of American Period Furniture Makers
Ohio River Valley Chapter
2011 Spring 2 Meeting in June
Brian Neeley's Farm, Lancaster, OH
On Sunday June 12, the Ohio River Valley Chapter held a special one day meeting in Lancaster, Ohio. The chapter thanks Brian "Dude" Neeley and his family for hosting the meeting and allowing the chapter to use their shop.
The Ohio River Valley Chapter was very fortunate that SAPFM member Don McConnell agreed to conduct a full day program on wooden hand planes. Don was in the Columbus area, his former hometown, attending a graduation ceremony. Currently, Don lives in Eureka Springs, Arkansas where he is one of the two partners with Old Street Tool Inc. (formerly Clark & Williams). Old Street Tool manufactures a complete line of wooden traditional style bench and side escapement molding planes. These planes will enable a woodworker to complete nearly any work traditionally done with hand planes. The Chapter was delighted that Don took time out of his very busy scheduled to present a very informative and enjoyable program.
During his presentation, Don covered many aspects of working with wooden hand planes. Don fielded numerous questions and explained many aspects of their use. When preparing stock entirely by hand, Don has found wooden bench planes much more efficient than metal planes made by companies like Stanley or Sargent because they are less tiring to use.
After extensive study over the years, Don and his partners at Old Street Tool have concluded that the best wooden planes were made mostly in Britain during the first half of the 18th century. They base this on function and aesthetics. Don explained that because these planes were highly sophisticated, they were able to make the complex furniture made during the 18th century. Old Street Tool's wooden planes are based on these British planes. Although Old Street Tool planes are very well made and efficient, the user must keep them tuned up, and they require a certain amount of acquired skill to be used properly.
All Old Street Tool bench planes use a single iron. Most vintage bench planes that you're likely to find like those made by Stanley will have double irons (a cutter blade and a cap iron). Don believes that single iron planes are better than double iron planes.
Unlike most molding planes, which are named for the profile that they produce, hollows and rounds are named after the plane's shape. In other words, a convex shaped plane is known as a round, and a concave plane is a hollow. To identify their size, a numbering system is used, which varies by manufacturer and is very inconsistent especially for planes made in America. As a general rule, the smaller the number, the smaller the plane. A sprung plane has a profile that is laid out at an angle relative to the plane, so when the plane is used, it is held at an angle (30 to 45 degree) to the edge. It has thin lines cut into the heel of the plane to help the user properly position the plane for cutting.
Most wooden bench and molding planes have one of the following four bed angles: 45 degree known as common pitch, 50 degree York pitch, 55 degree middle pitch and 60 degree half pitch or cabinet pitch. Planes designed to work hard or more difficult woods have higher bed angles, usually 50 degree or above. Surprisingly, most surviving 18th century bench planes have high bed angles.
When planning walnut, Don was asked the ideal bed angle for a bench plane. He recommended one with a 50 degree bed angle. When working pine or poplar, 45 degree is fine. For harder woods, Don recommends at least a 50 degree bed angle. Standard Old Street Tool smoothing planes are set at 55 degree and all other bench planes are set at 50 degree. Don explained that you don't automatically want to use a higher bed angle plane because the trade off is reduced edge life. In other words, you're going to have to sharpen the iron more often. And they're also harder to push.
Things to look for when buying a vintage plane:
1. On wooden bench planes, can you remove the iron from the body?
2. Avoid a plane with a badly pitted blade especially on the backside.
3. A little checking or cracks, especially on the ends of a bench plane, is not a problem. But you don't want checking or cracks near the mouth.
4. In many cases, if the mouth is too open it can be repaired by patching the sole especially if the plane uses a single iron. Double iron planes are more problematic. Generally, you want a tight mouth on a smoothing plane. A jack or fore plane can be more open.
5. The sole of a bench plane does not need to be perfect. Because of weather and atmospheric conditions, they will naturally change. But the heel, toe and mouth areas should be coplanar. You can true up the sole of a wooden bench plane. When you do this, keep the blade and wedge in the plane with the blade retracted. Use a jointer or better yet use a hand plane. Sandpaper glued to a flat surface like glass also works.
When you buy a vintage wooden plane, even one in good condition, you will need to tune it up. First check the bedding of the iron. The iron must sit solidly on the bed of the plane especially near the cutting edge or it will flutter and chatter and not work properly. Especially on molding planes, this will cause the plane to choke. Don uses a special tool called a plane float to level the bed. He brought several floats to the meeting and discussed how important they are if you intend to use molding planes. He explained that you will inevitably have to work on the plane's cheeks and throat areas. Next make sure the wedge is fairly uniform.
Generally, molding planes were not used as often as bench planes. Unless it has a very unique profile, you should be selective when considering whether to purchase one. Make sure the plane is in good shape because you should be able to find one in good condition. Check to see if the sole is straight. If it is badly bowed, don't buy the plane. It's not worth the effort straightening the sole.
If you need to reprofile the iron, apply layout die to the iron, let it dry and put the iron and wedge back into the plane. Advance the iron until the entire edge is just proud of the sole. Scribe a line on the iron following the sole. If a lot of metal needs to be removed, use a grinder. Set the tool rest so the iron approaches the grinding wheel at a right angle and grind to the line to establish a good clean edge. Reset the tool rest to an appropriate angle like 25 degree and grind until a tiny amount of the edge remains. Don't grind right to the edge, or you'll draw the temper out of the steel. Don uses a basic gray grinding wheel that he keeps properly dressed.
Don uses oilstones to hone the iron edge to 25 degree - 30 degree. You don't want to hone the entire bevel. By resting the bevel on the stone and then slightly picking up the iron, you can change the edge to a slightly higher bevel. By keeping the honing bevel fairly small, you only need to make three or four passes to get a sharp edge. Hone the bevel until a wire edge appears, then turn the iron over and remove the burr. Don uses medium India and translucent white Arkansas stones, which must be flat. Don uses a diamond stone to flatten his honing stones.
To adjust a wooden molding plane, tap the iron with a brass hammer or mallet to advance the iron downward while the body remains stationary. To retract the blade, tap the strike button on a bench plane or tap the top of the toe on a molding plane with a mallet. If you want to remove the iron for sharpening, sharply rap the heel of the plane with a mallet while holding the iron and wedge with your thumb.
When hand planning, it is important that your bench or work surface be the proper height. If you have to lift your shoulders, the surface is too high. If you do a lot of hand planning you could develop shoulder problems. When working with hand planes, stock selection is critical. And when planning the stock, you must carefully consider grain direction. If possible, always work with the grain.
Don discussed how planes and scrapers were used in the past. He explained how hollow, round and rabbet planes were used to rough in the profile. A specialized plane such as a cornice or dedicated complex profile plane followed and made the final few passes. He finished his outstanding presentation showing the group how to layout and make an ogee profile molding using hollows, rounds, a moving fillister, snipes-bill and rabbet planes.